NEW YORK — For a season characterized by unpredictable results, dramatic turnarounds and astounding finishes, the football team’s staggering 32-26 comeback victory over Columbia on Saturday proved that for this team, absolutely nothing is impossible. Trailing, 26-7, with just over nine and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Red (4-5, 4-2 Ivy) steamrolled for 25 unanswered points to seal its most improbable win of the season — and set up a showdown with Penn this Saturday with second place in the Ivy League on the line.
Cornell head coach Jim Knowles ’87 — in his first season at the helm of a program that finished last season winless in the Ancient Eight — simply could not hide his elation following the victory.
“Is ‘wow’ good enough for an opening statement?” he said.
The revitalized Red chased the Lions (1-8, 1-5 Ivy) for virtually the entire game, falling behind 14-0 at the half and 26-7 in the fourth quarter. However, the heavens aligned for Cornell on a blustery afternoon as senior cornerback Sean Nassoiy snatched two interceptions during the final quarter and quarterback D.J. Busch completed two touchdown passes in the final minutes to stun the home team at Wien Stadium.
“That was a disappointing loss,” said Columbia head coach Bob Shoop. “You can watch a lot of football and not see a loss like that.”
Prior to the fourth, the Red appeared as if it barely belonged on the same field as the Lions, having accumulated only eight first downs and 149 total offensive yards to Columbia’s 213 total yards and 11 first downs at the half. Columbia opened up its 19-point lead by exploiting the very aspect of the Cornell defense that reversed the Red’s fortunes in the fourth — the cornerbacks. The Red had given up 209 passing yards heading into the final period of play before Nassoiy and fellow defensive back Jason Cloyd sprung to life — and the Lions’ defense dissolved.
“I challenged the guys to play for 60 minutes and they only played for 48,” Shoop said. “That [12 minutes] was the worst defense we have played all year.”
By the time the final buzzer rang, Cornell led Columbia in virtually every offensive and defensive category. The Red recorded 422 total yards of offense, including 291 aerial yards from the combined efforts of Busch (178) and junior Ryan Kuhn (113). The running game also forced the Lions’ secondary to loosen up, as junior Josh Johnston notched 71 ground yards in addition to two touchdown runs. Senior wide receiver Chad Nice picked up 98 yards in the air off eight receptions and junior standout Brian Romney grabbed seven passes for 92 yards. Both Nice and Romney caught touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“It was amazing,” Knowles said. “All of the motivational things you can say came together in the last nine minutes.”
The Red’s comeback began when Johnston rumbled from Columbia’s one yard line with 9:33 remaining in the game to bring the score to 26-13. Nassoiy intercepted a pass by Columbia quarterback Jeff Otis on the Lions’ ensuing drive, returning the ball to Cornell’s offense at the Columbia 38. Johnston controlled the Red’s subsequent drive, running for 31 yards on five carries before reaching the Columbia end zone once again.
With the score at 26-20, Nassoiy out-witted Otis again and snatched his second pick, returning the ball 45 yards to Columbia’s 25. A 23-yard pass from Busch to Nice knotted the score at 26, completing the Red’s comeback with 5:17 left to play.
After trading punts, Busch found Romney with under a minute remaining for a 38-yard bomb that cemented an incredible victory for the Red.
For Cornell, the momentum achieved on Saturday will doubtlessly prove useful when the squad hosts defending league champion Penn this weekend. Yet, no matter what the outcome versus the Quakers, the win over Columbia asserted once again that things have changed for the once-embattled football program.
“Can you still believe when you are down by 19 points? [Saturday] it was our turn,” Knowles asked. “Our guys are winners at home and winners in the Ivy League. This program is going places.”
Archived article by Kyle Sheahen
Sun Assistant Sports Editor